Locals call for legalization of urban chicken keeping in Iowa City

BY KRISTEN EAST | APRIL 17, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Rio Grande winds through Albuquerque, N.M., creating a bustling hub for agricultural activity. This area provided KT LaBadie space to raise chickens before she and her husband moved to Iowa City.

"Raising chickens was a really great way to really connect with people in the community," she said. "It let me get to know the people in my town who were equally as interested in food production."

But LaBadie, 32, was forced to leave her chickens behind when she moved to Iowa City in August 2010, because the city's zoning code doesn't allow urban chickens.

LaBadie and other community members are advocating to legalize urban chicken keeping in Iowa City. Supporters cite education, sustainability, and animal welfare as their main arguments for a zoning amendment.

"Everyone comes to the table with different reasons [for urban chicken keeping]," said LaBadie, who organized several chicken-keeping groups in Albuquerque. "… But it's not like it's a brand-new thing. They're allowed in New York City, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and larger urban areas. I feel like they could work in Iowa City."

The issue could soon find its way to an Iowa City City Council agenda.

The Iowa City Citizens for the Legalization of Urban Chicken Keeping have formed physical and online petitions they hope to one day present to the City Council. The online petition — which requests a change in the city ordinance to allow residents to own no more than six hens — has garnered roughly 125 signatures since it began late March.

The City Council last addressed urban chicken keeping several years ago . According to a 2009 city memorandum, the Department of Housing and Inspection Services recommended councilors not amend the zoning code.

However, City Councilor Rick Dobyns said he'd be open to discussing the issue during a future work session.

"I have no personal interest in it, but during my campaign … I was surprised by the amount of genuine interest in having urban chickens," he said. "They pretty much convinced me. … It's just convincing the others."

But Councilor Susan Mims expressed some concerns, noting the current Iowa City animal shelter's lack of space.

"I still have some real concerns until we have the new animal shelter up," she said. "I think there's a possibility that we'd have chickens that would need to go [there]. My biggest concern is inadequate space."

Chicken-group member Shannon Gassman, 25, said the group is more focused now on collecting signatures and informally talking to councilors.

"We have a good online community," she said. "We want to actually establish a chicken group in Iowa City that can last."

One national expert said more cities are moving in a chicken-friendly direction.

"This is definitely a growing national trend," said Jennifer Murtoff, an urban-chicken consultant in the Chicago area. "People want to have fresh eggs, and they also want to educate their kids about where food comes from. There's an animal-welfare aspect of it."

Roughly 95 cities nationwide allow for urban chicken keeping, Murtoff said. Ames and Cedar Rapids allow it as well.

"[Ames] doesn't have a problem with an undergraduate population, transient community owning chickens," said Gassman, who moved to Iowa City from Ames two years ago. "I think there's a lot of precedence here."

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